Writing with Empathy

Writing with Empathy

Katie Benton-Cohen, History

Note: this is a very short writing assignment for a large introductory history course that focuses on methods.  The course format is approximately one lecture, one discussion and history “lab” per week. Generally the lab is submitted as a short written exercise and graded on Canvas, usually blind.  While this assignment is not focused on the technical details of writing, I found it to be one of the most successful: The students had to reflect on and be explicit about their own biases, and then analyze how they may have shaped their interpretations. I found their answers to be among the best during the course.  I like the speed and potential for anonymity for using speed grader in this course, but it makes it difficult to give substantive writing feedback.

History 099 Lab 9

Using the Bisbee Deportation of 1917 to Understand the US during World War I

Good history requires empathy. The American Historical Association defines this skill below.


Practice historical empathy.

  • Value the study of the past for its contribution to lifelong learning and critical habits of mind that are essential for effective and engaged citizenship.
  • Develop a body of historical knowledge with range and depth.
  • Recognize the ongoing provisional nature of knowledge.
  • Interpret the past in context; contextualize the past on its own terms.
  • Explore multiple historical and theoretical viewpoints that provide perspective on the past.

Recognize where they are in history.

Empathy is intrinsic to the discipline, and so, we might say, that apprehending and grappling with diverse points of view is essential to any good history.

It is also hard.

This Assignment:

The context of the World War I period included not just war preparation, but also the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910, and over 7,000 labor disputes in the United States in 1917 alone.

Here is the meat of our topic today:

During the summer of 1917, the radical union, the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, as they were known, called a strike in one of the nation’s most important copper-mining towns, Bisbee, Arizona. They wanted better wages, to keep up with inflation, and safer working conditions. The strikers came from at least three dozen countries. Mexicans were not allowed to work in the well-paying underground jobs, and earned about half of what other workers did, even when performing similar jobs. The strike demands included nearly equal wages for Mexican workers. Although the strike remained by all accounts relatively peaceful, in the morning of July 12, 1917, the popular county sheriff, Harry Wheeler, led a group of c. 2000 citizen “Deputies,” who swarmed the mountain town and rounded up around 1200 strikers or suspected strikers. Wheeler asked the men, “Are you an American, or are you not?” Then they were loaded onto twelve company-owned box cars and shipped into the middle of the New Mexico desert, where they were abandoned. An Army camp in Columbus, New Mexico, rescued the deported men, and took care of many of them for up to two months. The men were blacklisted and never allowed to return to Bisbee. Many of their wives and families received one-way railroad tickets out of town as well. National news coverage—including the front page of the New York Times, forced Woodrow Wilson to appoint a federal commission to investigate, which included Felix Frankfurter, future Supreme Court justice. This was awkward, because the vice-president of the Phelps-Dodge Corporation, the largest company in Bisbee, was Wilson’s largest campaign contributor. The commission—which included Felix Frankfurter, the brilliant lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice, whom Chad mentioned in class on Tuesday. He and others on the commission were appalled by conditions in Bisbee, but they concluded that no federal laws had been broken. There were state civil and criminal suits, but no one was ever convicted or penalized. The union was broken in Bisbee, where new unions did not re-emerge until the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, which gave workers the right to collective bargaining. The dual-wage system, which paid Mexicans less for the same work, persisted until legal challenges in the 1940s.

The assignment asks you to use empathy to examine different points of view about the event known as the Bisbee Deportation.


The Deportation: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B29ZH3pP60v4LUZiOC1seWQzVzg/edit (Links to an external site.)

New York Times, July 13, 1917.

Felix Frankfurter: He said that the strikers’ struggles nothing less than a “fight for the status of free manhood” by Mexicans and Slavs who “feel they were not treated as men.”[i] “As I get deeper and deeper into these marooned outposts of the country…far from the intimacies of my own life, it all seems, it all is, part of the whole. The war, the economic and racial conflicts and cross currents that produced it, the industrial anarchies, our American striving to realize the democratic faith—here.”[ii]

Harry Wheeler’s Statement in the Newspaper:

http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/bisbee/docs/bd627she.html (Links to an external site.)

Letter between Bisbee IWW Organizer and Union Headquarters:

http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/bisbee/docs/083.html (Links to an external site.)

Statement of Anna Payne, relative of deportees.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BxlUUcJsWvYQdjdpYnFVUmhTMXc/edit (Links to an external site.)

Coverage of incident in local, company-owned newspaper:

http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/bisbee/primarysources/recollections/great_wobbly_drive.html (Links to an external site.)

Anti IWW Propaganda:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BxlUUcJsWvYQOG1LUFRqVDA2Vms/edit (Links to an external site.)

Recollection of Local Resident:

http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/bisbee/docs/rec_exce.html (Links to an external site.)

Recollection of a Deportee:

http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/bisbee/docs/jahwats.html (Links to an external site.)

List of Deportees’ Demographics

http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/bisbee/deportees/index.html (Links to an external site.)

Statement of Phelps-Dodge Corporation General Manager, Walter Douglas:

http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/bisbee/docs/bd711com.html (Links to an external site.)

Letter from former Governor George W.P. Hunt to President Wilson about his visit to the Camp:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BxlUUcJsWvYQcDlhVzdOZEZna1k/edit (Links to an external site.)

Presidential Mediation Commission Final Report:

http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/bisbee/primarysources/reports/president/index.php?page=1 (Links to an external site.)


Answer these two questions:

  1. Given the basics of the story of the Bisbee Deportation, if you had to jump to a conclusion, based on your own biases, politics, and experiences, whose “fault” would you say this event was? (You can be brutally honest. This is to help you think about step two, and there are no right or wrong answers.)
  2. Now, as a historian, how would you go about practicing empathy in examining the Bisbee Deportation? No one is “objective,” but what concrete measures might you take to examine multiple points of view?  How do you decide which points of view or evidence had more validity than others? What more would you need to know to be more definitive in your interpretation? Who is missing from the perspectives?Can you imagine what kinds of sources might give you that information? Write a short paragraph about how you would practice empathy in interpreting the Bisbee Deportation. Whom might your interpretation affect today?

[i] Frankfurter, quoted in Michael Parrish, Mexican Workers, Progressives, and Copper: The Failure of Industrial Democracy in Arizona During the Wilson Years (San Diego, 1979), 30, 29.

[ii] Felix Frankfurter, quoted in Michael E. Parrish, Felix Frankfurter and His Times: The Reform Years (New York, 1982), 87-88.